It’s easy to miss the diminutive town of Gila (pronounced Hee-lah). With a population of around 300, you won’t find much in the way of city life, but you will be graced with eclectic groups of folks growing hearty food along the banks of the Gila River, one of the last free-flowing rivers in the region. Those in the area who aren’t farmers are artists, ranchers, retirees, California transplants or passer-throughs looking to explore the 3.3 million acres of wilderness surrounding the high desert.
Brittney and I stayed for three weeks in March with Eric, who farms around 20 acres near the river where he grows just about everything—lettuce and kale to fruit such as strawberries and blackberries—in greenhouses and nearby fields. He also has goats, chickens and few bee hives. He sells, mostly, to the thriving farmer's market in nearby Silver City, a Continental Divide Trail town that provided the luxuries of modernity after extended stays on the farm.
On our travels this year, we're focusing on learning permaculture and biodynamics, something Eric was well-versed in. His pesticide-free greens, which were thriving when we arrived, accompanied many of our meals—most of which were cooked by our host who had a knack for quality Indian fare.
When we weren’t prepping and planting in the greenhouses or discussing the different philosophies of life, Eric schooled us on the benefits of living off-grid. His home and the buildings surrounding it are adobe, sourced with materials right from his land, with a composting toilet and well water rounding everything out. Since New Mexico receives nearly 300 days of sunshine each year, Eric has furthered his self-sustainability by harnessing the sun with a solar oven to supplement using his gas stove.
The beauty of a solar oven is that it bakes, steams and boils with nothing more than an insulated box surrounded by reflective material. The sun is concentrated into the container, where a pot sits, to heat up the interior that’s encased with a glass door. Cast iron, glass or stoneware are best to use as they contain no plastics that will melt.
The only learning curve, we found, was how to position the oven properly. It should be focused directly at the sun and tilted at the correct angle (most have stands near the base with different levels). There’s no exact science to this, other than a bit of trial and error.
A solar oven is a gift that keeps on giving because after an initial start-up cost (you can purchase one or construct your own) you’ll use no fuel. That means more money in your pocket and you’re cooking with a completely natural method. Eric’s oven easily reached 350 degrees, plenty for most baking, and by positioning it just right, the temperatures reached close to 400 degrees.
One of the biggest pluses to this method is it’s relatively hands-off. We’d toss in some quinoa in the mid-morning and let is sit while we tended to the greenhouses. On a break, we’d only have to re-position it to better receive solar energy, then back to work with no worries of a fire or burning the food due to its slow-cooking nature. It’s been said that sun-cooked foods taste better and are more tender, partly because of these longer cook times. This allows the complex carbohydrates to break down into simple sugars—that means those subtle flavors in your food really pop.
Brittney and Eric teamed up to create a wonderful cornbread using blue Hopi corn. Eric ground the corn into a nice meal while Brittney procured the rest of the ingredients and did all of the leg work—I tackled the tough task of a bystander and a taste-tester.
• 1½ cup of corn meal
• ½ cup of flour
• 1¼ cup of plain yogurt or buttermilk
• 1 egg
• 1 tablespoon sugar
• 1 teaspoon salt
• 1 teaspoon baking powder
1. Mix yogurt and an egg together before combining with the dry ingredients.
2. Then, stir all contents into a bowl.
3. Preheat a cast iron skillet with a tablespoon of butter for around 7 minutes.
4. Cook at 375 degrees for 30 minutes or closer to an hour at 350 degrees.
Photos by Jonathan Olivier
Jonathan Olivier is traveling throughout 2018 with his partner, Brittney, with the goal of learning everything they can about farming. He is a freelance journalist, having covered the environment and outdoors for Outside, Backpacker, REI, Louisiana Sportsman, and a host of other publications. In 2016, he published his debut novel, Between the Levees. Follow Jonathan on his website and Instagram.
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